Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Difference Between Humility and Self-Deprecation

Perhaps one of the great things about public transport is that you get the opportunity to witness society in of its dysfunctional glory. Whether it is businessmen talking loudly enough on their mobile phones about their sex life for everyone else to hear, people talking to themselves or fellow travellers engaging in mind-numbing banalities, public transport seems to have that ability to produce the absurd. For that reason, most travellers prefer to mind their own business. Indeed, this was what I was doing the other day as I started reading through my copy of "Les Miserables". Perhaps this was a bad choice, because a girl of about my age became interested in my book and started talking to me. Realising that there was no way that I was going to get any more reading done, I put the book back in my bag and started to engage with her in conversation.

I'd like to think that I'm not a rude person, so I asked the standard bus conversation question: "Where are you heading?" As it turned out, she was volunteering as a crew member for the Anthony Robbins motivational seminars at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Making a fatal mistake, I feigned interest in the subject matter. I must be a fairly good actor, because before long she was recommending that I try the Anthony Robbins experience for myself.

As we approached Hay St, she rose from her seat and alighted from the bus. She asked me if I would like to walk with her to the Entertainment Centre since it was more or less only a slight detour en route to my destination. I can only assume I thought that was trying to pick me up because I agreed to her suggestion. As it turned out, the more likely explanation was that she was simply wanting to hock some Anthony Robbins merchandise. She escorted me into the foyer of the Entertainment Centre and showed me to the desk where the Anthony Robbins products were being sold. Looking at all of these overpriced products with happy, smiling people I thought I had just entered into Hillsong. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I had no desire to "Get the Edge" and that I was actually quite content being a "Minister of Incompetence", so I took a brochure and told her in a rather nondescript manner that the products looked interesting. I then thanked her for her time, told her genuinely that it was lovely to meet her and then went on my way.

I must admit that the whole incident got me thinking. Not about whether a relationship between a self-improvement junkie and a Minister of Incompetence could work out in this crazy world, but about the relationship between self-abasement and self-esteem. More particularly, I reflected upon whether the two concepts were necessarily mutually exclusive or whether they could happily coexist. I mean is self-confidence really all that bad? Is low self-esteem the same thing as humility? Reflecting upon this, I came up with the following principles:

(1) We are products of God's creation - Surely this suggests that each individual is of immeasureable worth. As the Psalmist remarks, we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). We cannot denigrate ourselves as worthless without denigrating the work of the Creator.

(2) We are made in God's image - We are not simply part of the creation - we have been carved in God's image (Genesis 1:27). That God has seen fit to bless us in this manner speaks volumes of our intrinsic worth.

(3) It is perfectly legitimate to recognise that there are areas where we have been gifted by God - God has given us all natural talents and abilities. What's more, we are expected to be good stewards of these gifts (Matthew 25:14-30). Good stewardship in this context usually means using these gifts to serve others (Romans 12:3-8). Only by acknowledging the fact that we are gifted in a certain area can we begin to use our gifts. Pretending that we don't possess these gifts doesn't help anyone and it doesn't glorify God. Such an attitude does not reflect humility, but rather false humility.

(4) We should not be proud of our abilities, but rather grateful - I'm not responsible for my abilities - rather my abilities are a product of the genetic lottery. Even if one's success is through hard work, it may still be said that they were genetically predisposed with the ability to apply themselves. We have been graciously granted these abilities by God, who is the author of every good gift (James 1:17).

(5) Thinking lowly of ourselves is not always humility - It may seem counter-intuitive, but I think that wallowing in self-pity is a strange form of pride. I mean, why would we spend so much time reflecting upon how terrible we were unless on some level we felt that our own miseries were important enough to dominate our thinking? Of course there's nothing wrong with acknowledging our flaws and weaknesses, but if we allow these things to consume our thinking at the expense of others, we paradoxically grant ourselves greater importance than others.

From these considerations, I've concluded that humility is actually quite a pragmatic concept. To my way of thinking humility is not so much about denigrating yourself as it is about choosing to forego the glory and honour that is usually associating with the exercise of one's gifts. Humility is actually a more accurate appraisal of one's self because it is the sober recognition that we are no more responsible for our abilities and talents than we are for the colour our eyes and as such we are not worthy of glory and honour. Furthermore, humility manifests itself in the time that we spend dedicated towards serving the interests of others. For this reason, Paul couples humility with the service of others and not with self-deprecation (Philippians 2:3-4). To put others interests before ourselves and indeed even before thoughts of our own inadequacies and weaknesses is what humility is all about.


Dr. Chaotica said...

I'm going to agree with you, but then I was always arguing that humility was quite different to thinking low of yourself.

To regress to "christian dan" for a minute, humility is actually when you aren't focusing on yourself at all. It is completely ignoring how good/bad gifted/usless you are, and doing what God has commanded. The example would be JC, who completely ignored himself and did what was needed.

I always said that humility was on a different and parallel axis to the spectrum between self-love and self-hate.

I once completely derailed a bible study group over this issue. A half hour plus argument ensued between me and the study leader (who being an MTS apprentice, had to be right right?) The rest of the study took cover behind conveniently located barrels of water like in a western.

And I'm pretty sure I'm an authority on self-loathing, it is basically another way of being completely wrapped up in yourself.

Now, back to heathen dan.... and I'll say that all the recent good is purely a result of pride and self-loathing at the appropriate times.

emblazoned said...

David has become very quiet...